The Midnight Ride

by Stephen Clark

As the man standing on the corner drenched in the streetlight hovering overhead looked into the distance, he saw the headlights approach him. As it drew closer the sign on the top of the car that read "On Duty" lit up and it slowed down to a complete stop in front of him. For a while he stood in the pale light and contemplated what to do next. Finally the man walked towards the cab and griped the handle on the door, swinging the weight of his body into the back seat.

"Where to, mister?" The driver turned his head to look at the man, but he cloaked his face in a brown hood so the driver could not make eye contact. The man was holding a paper bag crumpled up into a strange shape, turning it over and over again in his hands.

"Just drive", the man said in a somber tone that the driver instantly recognized as the kind of aimless wandering that entered his cab from time to time, people who just needed to move around the city and get away from whatever it was they were running from.

"Anywhere in particular?" The driver inquired tentatively, trying not to make his presence even more of a distraction for the man who was already clearly jaded.

"No, just keep driving", the man urged, a note of restraint present in his tone.

The driver glanced in his rear-view mirror to look at the man and saw that he was pulling something out of the paper bag. At first he did not recognize what he was holding, but then the object became more clear as the man took aim and pointed it directly at the driver's head.

"What is it that you want, son?" The driver didn't seem to panic or bargain for his life, but rather calmly asked him what his intentions were.

"Shut up, just drive. I haven't decided anything yet."

"You know, son. I used to be a lot like you. I really did." The driver's posture relaxed and he looked as if he was getting ready to tell a long story.

"What did I just tell you, man? I'm trying to think! Shut up!'

"Sometimes we think a lot better when we have someone there to tell us what the right thing is, when we have trouble figuring it out ourselves. Sort of like...guardian angels. Do you know what I mean, son?"

The man covered his ears with his hands and began rocking back and forth, still firmly grasping the gun that was now pressed to the temple of his head.

As the cab approached Washington Street the driver went east, turning onto a small road that was half cobblestone.

"Where are you going?" The man in the back demanded suddenly, his gun waving violently through the air.

"You said to keep driving, that's what I am doing. Would you like me to stop?"

"No...no. I don't want to stop. I don't know what I want." The man's expression went blank and he stared out the window for a moment, gazing out at the empty rows of sidewalk on either side, the closed signs dangling in the storefront windows. "How much do you have on you?" He turned his attention back to the driver, the gun in his hand in a neutral mode of operation.

"Not enough" He replied without tone or inflection.

"Not enough, for what?" The man asked, confused and frustrated.

"For it to matter. It doesn't matter how much money you take, or how long we drive. In the end you will still feel lost, son."

"You don't know anything about me! And stop calling me son! I am nobody's son..." He lowered the gun and looked out the window again for just a second, seeing the stream of lights that lined both sides of the street. They flew by like the tails of twin comets blazing through the sky from the view of inside a spaceship.

"I think I know more than you think. I've lived my life to the fullest, and I don't regret anything. I didn't always make the right decisions, but the things I did get right made all of the other stuff unimportant."

"Who are you, man?" He looked up at the driver, his eyes red, wild with a look of pleading desperation.

"I'm just the guy who's driving. The question is where you want to go."

"I've told you before, I don't know where to go or what to do. I don't want to shoot you..!"

"You don't have to do anything you don't want. None of us do. We just do whatever is in our hearts, good or bad."

For a few minutes there was complete silence. The car kept moving and the engine kept humming away, until it stopped suddenly. The cab braked to a halt and the engine suddenly died.

"Hey, what the hell is going on? Why did you stop?" The man became enraged, pressing the barrel of the gun to the driver's head.

"I'm sorry, but this is my stop. I'm being expected. You can come in if you wish."

"What? Hey, get back in here!" The man demanded as he watched the driver open the door of the cab and slowly get out. He was too stunned and bewildered to take any sort of action, except to look outside the window at where the driver was going. It was a church. One with a gothic architectural structure that loomed over the cab the man was still sitting in, disbelief molding his expression. He finally managed to grip the door handle and open it, pouring out onto the sidewalk. He looked up and saw two large menacing gargoyles grimacing at him as lightning crashed through the dry air. Suddenly there was rain, wind, and a thunderous boom that echoed all around him. For a reason he himself wasn't completely sure of, he proceeded toward the series of stairs that led into the front of the church where the driver had disappeared.

He tucked the gun away into the paper bag again and under his jacket, pulling open one of the long wide heavy doors that towered over him. His field of vision was blurred by what seemed like a thousand candles scattered around the room inside. The pews were packed with churchgoers wearing solemn expressions and all of them dressed in black. He stood in the back and nobody seemed to notice he was there at first. He looked around and marveled at the site of so many people crammed into a church at such a late hour.

Then he saw a man wearing white and black robes approach the front podium, the expression on his face reflecting that of the congregation. The man in the robes stood silent for a moment, holding his head down in some show of respect for something that the man holding the gun had no idea about.

"We are here to honor our beloved friend, John. He was a good man, a wonderful father, and a devoted husband. We will remember his contributions to this life and pray that his next will be just as meaningful and special."

After those short words were spoken, the man with the gun still clenched tight in his hand looked over to see the large picture resting on an aisle to the side of the podium in front. The picture was of the man driving the taxi cab. At first he couldn't make the connection. It didn't make sense. What was happening? How could all of these people be at a funeral for man who not more than five minutes ago walked into this very church? The questions spiraled around inside his head until he thought that he was going to pass out right there.

"Sir, are you okay?" A tall man with wavy brown hair and a black suit asked, his voice full of concern. "You've just been standing back here."

"I'm fine. But who is that man there in the picture?" His eyes scanned the man's face for some logical answer to his question before he could even say a word.

"That is John Reiner. He died last week. Are you here to pay your respects?"

"No. No, I don't understand. He just walked in. This has to be wrong somehow." His head continued spinning and his body swayed from side to side.

"Understand what? He was murdered, by a man who tried to rob his cab. He didn't have any money so the man just shot him. Such a terrible way to go. He was pronounced dead at around midnight. His wife said that she wanted the service to be held at the exact time of his death. A little odd if you ask me, but just look at all the people who showed up."

Both of the men stared at each other for a while and then finally the deafening silence was broken by the mass exodus of mourners getting up and leaving the church. The two men stood facing each other as the crowd of people streamed around them, bits and pieces of conversation getting tangled together in the air.

"He had two sons you know", the man said. "He loved them so much. He was on his way home when he decided to pick up one last person for the night. He always said that some people just look like they need to be taken somewhere, shown the way. That's just the way he was."

"Are you all right?" He asked the man who looked as if he had been running for miles and couldn't catch his breath.

At first he stood in silence, deep in contemplation, until the question rang in his ears once again.

"Sir, are you okay? You don't look well. Can I do anything?"

"I'll be fine. Take this please, I don't think I'm going to need it anymore." The man revealed the paper bag that he had been concealing under his coat and handed it over to him. Walking away, he began to realize that even though he still didn't know where he was going, he no longer needed the gun to find wherever that was.

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